About two weeks ago the Zooniverse launched its latest citizen science project 'Space Warps'. Built by the citizen science team here at the Adler in collaboration with scientists at the Universities of Oxford and Tokyo, Space Warps invites members of the public to hunt for some of the rarest objects in the Universe - gravitational lenses. These objects are the result of large concentrations of mass (such as a very large galaxy) bending light around them and acting like giant lens in space allowing astronomers to peer back into the early history of the Universe.
Not only do these lenses magnify the background galaxies, by measuring the effect of the light-distortion of the background galaxies we can work out the mass of the foreground galaxy. Why do we want to weigh galaxies? It turns out that when we weigh galaxies we find that the stuff we can see (such as stars, gas, and dust) doesn't account for all of the mass we know is there. There's some mass missing and this is commonly referred to in astronomy as 'dark matter'.
Deciphering the nature of dark matter is a pretty hot topic right now, in fact it's the final question we leave our visitors with at the end of our new show Cosmic Wonder. Every new gravitational lens we find tells us something more about the distribution of dark matter in the Universe therefore getting us a little closer to the truth about its true identity. We know there are new gravitational lenses to be found in the hundreds of thousands of images available on Space Warps taken from the CFHT legacy survey.
We've had a great first two weeks with more than 17,000 citizen scientists produce more than 2 million image classifications for us. Will you join is on our quest to answer one of the biggest questions in the Universe?
Written by Dr. Arfon Smith, director of Citizen Science at the Adler Planetarium.